Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Does the internet rot your brain?

Certainly not if you use it to read sites like this one!  But seriously, when I was a kid, it was TV, then it was video games, now, it seems that the internet is the target of everyone's brain-deteriorating fears.  The truth is, people have been afraid of the intellect-destroying potential of new technologies for a long time...  for example, according to an article at Slate.com:
 A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.
 But the fear goes back even further than that:
Socrates famously warned against writing because it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." He also advised that children can't distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not "improper" tales, lest their development go astray.
As time marched on, asking kids to leave their homes and actually go to school was seen as a threat to their developing minds, then it was the radio, and then, of course, television, and now, computers and them darned interwebs...
By the end of the 20th century, personal computers had entered our homes, the Internet was a global phenomenon, and almost identical worries were widely broadcast through chilling headlines: CNN reported that "Email 'hurts IQ more than pot'," the Telegraph that "Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values" and the "Facebook and MySpace generation 'cannot form relationships'," and the Daily Mail ran a piece on "How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer." Not a single shred of evidence underlies these stories, but they make headlines across the world because they echo our recurrent fears about new technology.
But, not to worry, there is good news (and it is not just that cannabis use won't permanently lessen your IQ, unless, of course, you are a chronic chronic-user).  As far as the internet is concerned...
There is, in fact, a host of research that directly tackles these issues. To date, studies suggest there is no consistent evidence that the Internet causes mental problems. If anything, the data show that people who use social networking sites actually tend to have better offline social lives, while those who play computer games are better than nongamers at absorbing and reacting to information with no loss of accuracy or increased impulsiveness.
 To add to this, I posted about the social networking bit a little while ago, and I also seem to remember seeing an article out not too long ago that suggested surfing the web could actually improve cognition.  However, despite all of this seeming positivity, there is some bad news... it looks like TV doesn't seem to fair as well in the research...
In contrast, the accumulation of many years of evidence suggests that heavy television viewing does appear to have a negative effect on our health and our ability to concentrate. We almost never hear about these sorts of studies anymore because television is old hat, technology scares need to be novel, and evidence that something is safe just doesn't make the grade in the shock-horror media agenda. 
 Of course, I am half-inclined to chalk these results up to the ills of excess rather than tv itself (as there are mixed results on the supposed ill effects of tv viewing, even during critical periods of learning and development. TV is bad.  TV is not bad.)  As another example of this, the internet gets mostly positive reviews, but there is some evidence to suggest that overuse (aka internet addiction) may be linked to depression, or that the internet itself is more addictive than gambling.
So, the bottom line, appears to be that there is no definitive "bottom line". History seems to suggest that whatever new technologies come out, they will almost certainly be met with fear over their potential to mushify our brains (oh god! it's happening already), BUT, as with almost any new technologies or cultural influences, the picture is never just black and white.  Whether it's TV or the internet, there are bound to be things that will make us smarter (like PBS or the Discovery Channel, or dare I say, this blog?) and there are things that might make us dumber, or at least, definitely won't make us smarter (like TMZ, the Jersey Shore, or, dare I say, this blog?).  The real bottom line is that content has always been, and will always be, up to the discretion of the user, so, if you want to challenge your brain, you can use the internet or the tv (or radio or books) to do so, and if you want to turn your brain off for a while, you can use the internet or tv (or radio or books) to do that too.

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